John Piper
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Excerpt from the book Ayrshire Heritage by Andrew M. Boyle. Alloway Publishing, Ayr.Text and images on this page are the copyright of Andrew M. Boyle. Permission for display on this site granted by the author. You may view and download this page for personal research purposes only. No other distribution or use of this text is authorized. 


The aerial view of Sydney harbour, with its magnificent bridge and unique opera house, is one of the finest and best-known panoramas in the world. It is likely, though, that few Ayrshire folk will know that a prominent part of the city's waterfront is named after a native of the county.

John Piper was born in Maybole on 20th April, 1773, a son of the local physician, Doctor Hugh Piper. A brother, Thomas Piper, is known to Burns enthusiasts as 'Spunkie Tammie', a name given to him by the poet after the two men met in Maybole in 1786. It has been claimed that a third brother settled in America and that one of his descendants founded the internationally known Piper Aircraft Corporation but research has shown this to be false

John is difficult to describe but he was a character, certainly. Easy going and charming, he made friends easily; adventurous and audacious, his exploits brought both fame and notoriety during his lifetime; intelligent but irresponsible, he made and squandered a fortune in a few years; all in all, he was an eccentric who lived life to the full. There is little wonder that he is remembered still in Australia, his adopted land.

John arrived first in Australia in 1791, aged 18, as a lowly and poorly paid Ensign in the New South Wales Corps, an ill-disciplined and motley band of renegades raised in Britain and sent out chiefly to police the penal colonies. According to contemporary writers, and repeated regularly ever since then, Piper had already gained fame as the first European to have been behind the Great Wall of China. The circumstances of his adventure have not been recorded and it has never been authenticated. Ensign Piper had been only a short time in Australia when he volunteered for duty in the convict settlement on Norfolk Island. The island is only 14 square miles of rugged terrain in the south-west Pacific Ocean, 1035 miles north-east of Sydney, and was probably the most isolated and desolated outpost under British rule.

 In 1795, Piper was promoted to Lieutenant and returned to Sydney but things did not go well for him. After several minor scrapes with authority, he got involved as a Second in a duel between his superior officer, Colonel Paterson, and a friend, Captain MacArthur. The Governor of New South Wales intervened and stopped the duel [see note below] and, with the others involved, Piper was arrested. He then incurred the wrath of his senior officers by writing a rude letter to the Governor, telling him that he had no right to interfere in a dispute between gentlemen. He was court martialled but to the anger of the unpopular Governor, was acquitted. 

In 1804, Lieutenant Piper was posted back to Norfolk Island and as Acting Governor ran the island for six years. His command was very successful and included seeing the settlement through a near-famine when a plague of caterpillars ate most of the green food. It was recorded by a convict who was on the island at the time that 'the Governor had the goodwill and respect of everyone for he always conducted himself as a Christian and a gentlemen.' In 1806, he was promoted to Captain.

On Norfolk Island, John met Mary Ann Shears, the daughter of a convict and they formed an attachment that lasted for the rest of his life. At first, they were not married but had two sons. In 1811 they returned to Britain on leave and soon it became obvious that he would have to choose between the convict's daughter and his military career. He chose Mary Ann, resigned his commission and together they returned to Sydney in 1814. The couple married in 1816 and had thirteen children in all.

John Piper's return to Australia brought a sudden and unexplained improvement in his fortunes. Aged 41, he returned as Senior Naval Officer of the Port of Sydney, a civilian post in spite of its title and a very important position in the colony. Someone of great influence in Britain must have exercised it on his behalf but who did so is not known. As Naval Officer of the port, he was Chairman of the Harbour Trust, Chief of Water Police, Master of Lighthouses and, most important, Comptroller of Customs.

His basic salary as Naval Officer was only $800 a year which was not high for the importance of his position but compared favourably with the $180 a year he had received as an army Captain 3 years earlier. in addition, he had small salaries for his Trust, Police and Lighthouse responsibilities. However, it was from his Customs post that he drew most of his money. As Comptroller, he was allowed to take a five percent cut of all revenues collected at the port, including customs duties, excise on spirits and harbour dues. The port was growing quickly and already the customs office was the busiest in Australia. Even in the early years, Piper's percentage gave him $8,000 a year, making him amongst the highest paid men in Australia.

Soon, John Piper had amassed a considerable fortune. He dabbled in commerce and was made Chairman of Directors of the Bank of New South Wales; he was also a Steward of the Sydney Jockey Club, a Magistrate of the colony and President of the Scots Kirk committee.

Socially, he was at the top of the ladder and he lived to the limits of his wealth. Contemporary comments on him paint a picture of his lifestyle. He was described as 'leader of the world in fashion', 'the great buck', 'the Prince of hosts', 'the gay cavalier' and 'the Prince of Australia'.

In 1820 he was granted 190 acres of land on the waterfront in a location which was, at that time, outside Sydney. On his estate he built a mansion with a double-domed roof, which he called Henrietta Villa. A description of the new house was lavish in its praise-'There is nothing like it in the colony. He has laid out immense sums and no expense has been spared to ornament this fairy palace.' The banqueting room, which lay under one of the large domes, was in the form of a St. Andrew's Cross. The garden, enclosed with a clipped hedge, also in the form of a St. Andrew's Cross, supplied 'an abundance of the choicest fruits of every species.' There was a private orchestra, boats and boatmen, several carriages, and a stable of racehorses. Well over 100 people were employed in the house and on the estate. 

Henrietta Villa was the scene of magnificent entertainments---grand balls, picnics and elaborate fetes of all kinds. A friend said of John Piper,' He does things properly for he sends carriages and four, or boats for those who like the water, and returns his guests to their homes in the same manner. At his table there is a vast profusion of every luxury the four quarters of the globe can supply. His wealth and social eminence did not change John and he was still an easygoing and affable man. He was very generous and his friendship was abused by many who saw him as an easy touch financially. He recognised no social barriers when making friends and was surrounded by an army of spongers. It was said by one snobbish acquaintance that---''There is no honour in dining with Piper for he invites everyone. His wife, Mary Ann, responded well to the challenge of her changed social position and soon the convict's daughter was a highly respected hostess.

As his influence increased, John obtained more grants of land from the government. Throughout New South Wales he had a total of over 5,000 valuable acres in lots of various sizes and in Sydney, in addition to his estate, he had an acre of land in the heart of the city.

But John's heyday was not to be long-lived. In 1825, by which time he was 52 years of age and had been back in Australia for eleven years, a new Governor was appointed. Sir Ralph Darling was no sooner in post than he turned his attention to John Piper and an official enquiry was set up to investigate the customs accounts. It was found that while the annual revenue was about $400,000, there was only about $1,000 in the account; John Piper had received $20.000 as his percentage and $8,000 as his salary, and the remainder had been frittered away by lax and costly administration.

The enquiry's finding was that John Piper had not been dishonest--he had been negligent, imprudent and irresponsible. $229,446 was outstanding as unpaid customs dues, caused by laxity in their collection. Although John's percentage cut depended on the total amount collected, it was known that he never harassed tax debtors, indeed, anyone with genuine difficulty in paying was likely to be entertained to lunch at Henrietta Villa by the sympathetic Comptroller.

The Governor suspected that John's banking affairs would be in a similar mess and a check showed that under his Chairmanship and by his influence, more than half of the assets of the Bank of New South Wales had been loaned to a small group of businessmen. Once more, the collection of interest payments had been less than efficient.

John Piper was forced to resign from most of his posts, including those of Comptroller of Customs and Bank Director. In addition, he was ordered to pay large sums of money to the government as compensation for his negligence. He was left in financial difficulties and knew that he would have to sell his home and most of his land to settle his affairs.

However, 'the gay cavalier', 'the Prince of Australia', decided to go out with a flourish. He summoned his boatmen and his private piper. As the boatmen rowed him out into the middle of Sydney harbour, his piper played a lament at the stem and John stood at the prow in full dress uniform with his sword held high. When they reached the middle, he ordered the oarsman to stop and with a last farewell he stepped overboard. His servants loved him dearly and fished him out immediately. Having made his eccentric gesture, John returned to his position at the bow of the boat and to the strains of a rousing strathspey he was rowed back to the shore.

The Piper debts were paid in full, even although a severe fall in land values at the time caused his properties and other holdings to be sold for rock-bottom sums. John Piper retired with his family to a small country property at Bathurst, New South Wales, which he called Alloway Bank in remembrance of his Ayrshire roots. He reared cattle, made cheese, kept sheep and sold wool. He was a magistrate, sat on the board of' the local church and was involved in many other aspects of the town's affairs. Unfortunately, through a combination of drought, generosity and extravagance, he lost this property as well. Wealthy friends who still held him in high regard as a man, raised money and set the family up in a 500 acre property which they arranged in the names of Mrs. Piper and the children. John Piper died there on 8th June, 1851, aged 78 years.

A promontory on the south side of Sydney's waterfront which was part of John's 190 acre estate is still called Piper Point and streets in the district are named to his memory. The Point, densely covered with expensive apartment blocks and high class properties, is the millionaires' district of the city. The land that formed the estate and the acre John owned in the city centre are now important parts of Sydney and if they had been retained in Piper ownership until developed, his descendants could have been fabulously rich.

John Piper may have been a foolish man in many ways but he was always friendly and generous to all classes of people, Many men benefited from his kindness and many abused his friendship. Fortunately. a few real friends recognized his true worth as a man and stood by him to the end. One thing is; certain, he led a full and interesting life.

Other Books:

The Life and Times of Captain John Piper by M. Barnard Eldershaw (National Trust Australia) Published by Ure Smith, Sydney, Australia

"Point Piper Past and Present" by Nesta Griffiths. first published by Ure Smith, Sydney, Australia 1947.

Your excerpt from 'Ayrshire Heritage by Andrew M. Boyle' perpetuates the error that Governor King was able to stop the duel between Lieutenant Colonel Paterson and Captain Macarthur. In fact the Governor only became aware of the duel after Paterson had been seriously wounded. I realise that this is a quote from a book but thought you might like to correct the error.  Macarthur was ultimately sent to London for trial but escaped punishment for the breach of the Articles of War prohibiting a junior officer either challenging or provoking a challenge in respect of his superior officer.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography  is probably as good a source as any. Have a look at the entries for Piper, John, Macarthur, John and Paterson, William . Piper himself was nearly sent to London for court-martial. Because the criminal courts in the colony were under the control of the military trying to court-martial him here was futile. Sincerely Eric Strasser, Australia.